In the twilight of ancient Rome, the madness of emperors was more the rule than the exception. Few historians doubt that this was a sign of Rome’s decrepitude. Today a scary clown is made king in the world’ s most powerful nation state, and yet this is not generally understood as a sign that capitalist civilisation has itself reached an advanced stage in its own decadence. The surge of populism in the epicentres of the system, which has brought in quick succession Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump, expresses the fact that the ruling class is losing its grip over the political machinery that, for many decade now, has been used to hold back capitalism’s innate tendency towards collapse. We are witnessing an enormous political crisis brought about by the accelerating decomposition of the social order, by the complete inability of the ruling class to offer humanity a perspective for the future. But populism is also a product of the inability of the exploited class, the proletariat, to put forward a revolutionary alternative, with the result that it is grave danger of being dragged into a reaction based on impotent rage, on fear, on the scapegoating of minorities and a delusional quest for a past that never really existed. This analysis of the roots of populism as a global phenomenon is developed in more depth in the contribution ‘On the question of populism’ and we encourage our readers to examine the general framework it offers, along with our initial more specific response to the Brexit result and the rise of Trump’s candidacy, ‘Brexit, Trump: setbacks for the ruling class, nothing good for the proletariat’. Both texts are published in n°157 of our International Review.
We have also published an article by our sympathiser in the US, Henk: ‘Trump v. Clinton: nothing but bad choices for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat’. This article, written in early October, looked at the almost frantic efforts of the more ‘responsible’ factions of the US bourgeoisie, both Democrat and Republican, to stop Trump from getting to the White House1. These efforts evidently failed, and one of the more immediate factors which brought about this failure was the incredible intervention by the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, at the very point where Clinton seemed to be surging ahead in the polls. The FBI, the very heart of the US security apparatus, severely damaged Clinton’s chances by announcing that she may well have a criminal case to answer after it had further investigated her use of private email servers, which goes against the basic rules of state security. A week or so later, Comey tried to backtrack by announcing that, in fact, there was nothing untoward in all the material the Bureau had examined. But the damage had been done and the FBI had made a major contribution to the Trump campaign, whose rallies have endlessly chanted the slogan ‘Lock Her Up’. The FBI’s intervention was yet another expression of a growing loss of political control at the centre of the state apparatus.
Communists don’t fight for the lesser evil
The article ‘Trump v. Clinton’ begins by clearly re-stating the communist position on bourgeois democracy and elections in this epoch of history: that they are a gigantic fraud which offers no choice for the working class. This lack of choice was perhaps more pronounced than ever in this election, fought between the arrogant showman Trump, with his overtly racist and misogynist agenda, and Clinton, who embodies the ‘neo-liberal’ order that has been the dominant form of state capitalism for the last three decades. Faced with a choice between two evils, a substantial part of the electorate, as is always the case in US elections, did not vote at all - an initial estimate gives the turn out as just under 57%, lower than in 2012 despite all the pressures to go out and vote. At the same time, many who were critical of both camps, but of Trump in particular, decided to vote for Hillary as the lesser of the two evils. For our part, we know that abstaining from bourgeois elections out of disillusionment with what’s on offer is at best only the beginning of wisdom: it is essential, though extremely difficult when the working class is not acting as a class, to show that there is another way of organising society which will pass through the dismantling of the capitalist state. And in the post-election period, this rejection of the existing political and social order, this insistence on the necessity for the working class to fight for its own interests outside and against the prison of the bourgeois state, will be no less relevant, because many will be drawn towards a simple anti-Trumpism, a kind of revamped anti-fascism2 which will again align itself with more ‘democratic’ factions of the bourgeoisie – most probably with those which talk the language of the working class and of socialism, as Bernie Sanders did during the Democratic primaries3
Trumpism’s social base
This is not the place to analyse in detail the motives and social composition of those who voted for Trump. There is no doubt that the misogyny, the anti-woman rhetoric so central to the Trump campaign, played its part and it needs to be studied in itself, especially as it is part of a much more global ‘male backlash’ against the social and ideological changes in gender relations during the last few decades. In the same way, there has been a sinister growth of racism and xenophobia in all the central capitalist countries, and this played a key role in Trump’s campaign. There are also particular elements to racism in America which need to be understood: in the short term, reaction to the Obama presidency and to the American version of the ‘migrant crisis’, in the longer term, the whole heritage of slavery and segregation. From the early figures, the long history of the racial divide in America can be discerned in the fact that the pro-Trump vote was overwhelmingly white (although it did mobilise a rather significant number of ‘Hispanics’) while around 88% of black voters chose the Clinton camp. We will return to these questions in future articles.
But as we argue in the contribution on populism, we think that perhaps the most important element in the Trump victory was rage against the neo-liberal ‘elite’ which has identified itself with the globalisation and financialisation of the economy – macro-economic processes which have enriched a small minority at the expense of the majority, and above all at the expense of the working class in the old manufacturing and extractive industries. ‘Globalisation’ has meant the wholesale dismantling of manufacturing industries and their transfer to countries like China where labour power is far cheaper and profits are thus much higher. It has also meant the ‘free movement of labour’, which for capitalism is another means to cheapen labour power through migration from ‘poorer’ to ‘richer’ countries. Financialisation has meant, for the majority, the domination of economic life by the increasingly mysterious laws of the market. More concretely it meant the 2008 crash which ruined so many small investors and aspiring house-owners.
Again, more detailed statistical studies are needed, but it does appear that a core strength of the Trump campaign was the support it won from non-college educated whites, and especially from workers in the ‘Rust Belt’, the new industrial deserts who voted for Trump as a protest against the established political order, personified in the so-called ‘metropolitan liberal elite’. Many of these same workers or regions had voted for Obama in the previous elections, and some supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Their vote was above all a vote against – against the growing inequality of wealth, against a system which they felt has deprived them and their children of any future. But this opposition was framed in the complete absence of a real working class movement, and has thus fed the populist world-view which blames the elite for selling out the country to foreign investors, to giving special privileges to migrants, refugees and ethnic minorities at the expense of the ‘native’ working class – and to women workers at the expense of male workers. The racist and misogynist elements of Trumpism thus go hand in hand with the rhetorical attacks on the ‘elite’.
Trump in power: no smooth ride
We won’t speculate about what Trump’s presidency will be like or what policies he will try to implement. What characterises Trump above all is his unpredictability, so it will not be easy to foresee the consequences of his reign. There is also the fact that while Trump can say a dozen contradictory things before breakfast, and that this didn’t seem to affect his support in the election campaign, what worked in the campaign may not work so well in office. So for example, Trump presents himself as the archetypal self-made entrepreneur and talks about liberating the American businessman from bureaucracy, but he also talks about a massive programme of restoring the infrastructure in the inner cities, of building roads, schools and hospitals and revitalising the fossil fuels industry by abolishing environmental protection limits, all of which implies a heavy state capitalist intervention in the economy. He is pledged to expel millions of illegal immigrants, and yet much of the US economy depends on their cheap labour. On foreign policy, he combines the language of isolationism and withdrawal (as in his threat to scale down US involvement in NATO) with the language of interventionism, as with his bluster about ‘bombing the hell out of IS’, while promising to increase the military budget.
What seems certain is that Trump’s presidency will be marked by conflict, both within the ruling class and between the state and society. It’s true that Trump’s victory speech was a model of reconciliation – he will be a ‘president for all Americans’. And Obama, before receiving Trump at the White House, said that he wanted to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. In addition, the fact that there is now a large Republican majority in Senate and Congress could mean- if the Republican establishment overcomes its antipathy for Trump – that he will be able to get their backing for a number of his policies, even if the more demagogic ones may be put in the pending tray. But the signs of future tensions and clashes are not hard to see. Parts of the military hierarchy, for example, are likely to be very hostile to some of his foreign policy options, if he persists in his scepticism about NATO, or translates his admiration for Putin as a strong leader into undermining US attempts to counter the dangerous resurgence of Russian imperialism in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Opposition to some of his domestic policies could also arise from within the security apparatus, the federal bureaucracy and big business interests, who might see it as their role to ensure that Trump is not allowed to run amok. Meanwhile, the political demise of the ‘Clinton dynasty’ may also give rise to new oppositions and perhaps even splits within the Democratic Party, with the likely rise of a left wing around the likes of Bernie Sanders, hoping to capitalise on the mood of hostility to economic and political establishments.
At the social level, if post-Brexit Britain is anything to go by, we are likely to see a sinister flowering of ‘popular’ xenophobia as overtly racist groups feel that they are now empowered to realise their fantasies of violence and domination; at the same time police repression against ethnic minorities may reach new heights. And if Trump seriously begins his programme of detaining and expelling the ‘illegals’, all these developments could provoke resistance in the streets, in continuity with some of the movements we have been seeing in the last few years following police murders of black people. Indeed, from the very day the election result was announced, there has been a series of very angry demonstrations in cities across America, generally involving young people who feel disgusted at the prospect of a Trump-led government.
The international impact
At the international level, Trump’s victory is set to be, as he himself put it, ‘Brexit plus plus plus’. It has already given a powerful boost to right wing populist parties in western Europe, not least the Front National in France where the presidential election is due in 2017. These are parties who want to withdraw from multi-national trade organisations and favour economic protectionism. With Trump’s most aggressive statements being directed against Chinese economic competition, this could mean that we are heading towards a trade war which, as in the 1930s, will further constrict an already clogged-up world market. The neo-liberal model has served world capitalism well over the last two decades, but it is now approaching its limits, and what lies ahead bears the danger of transferring the ‘every man for himself’ tendency we have seen at the imperialist level to the economic sphere, where it has so far been held more or less in check. Trump has also declared that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to support their export drive, and says he will pull out of all the existing international agreements on climate change. We know how limited these agreements are already, but scrapping them is likely to plunge us even more deeply into the mounting world ecological disaster.
We repeat: Trump symbolises a bourgeoisie which has truly lost any perspective for running society. For all his vanity and narcissism, he is not mad himself, but he embodies the madness of a system which is running out of options, even that of world war. Despite its decadence, the ruling class has, for over a century, been able to use its own political and military apparatus – in other words, its conscious intervention as a class – to prevent a complete loss of control, a final working out of capitalism’s innate drive towards chaos. We are now beginning to see the limits of this control, even if we shouldn’t underestimate our enemy’s capacity to come up with new temporary fixes. The problem for our class is that the evident bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie at all levels – economic, political, moral – is not, with the exception of a very small minority, generating a revolutionary critique of the system but rather misdirected rage and poisonous divisions in our own ranks. This poses a serious threat to the future possibility of replacing capitalism with a human society.
And yet one of the reasons why world war is not on the agenda today, despite the severity of capitalism’s crisis, is that the working class has not been defeated in open combat and still contains untapped capacities for resistance, as we have seen in various massive movements during the last decade, such as the French students’ struggle in 2006 or the ‘Indignados’ revolt in Spain in 2011 and the Occupy movement in the US in the same year. In America, these heralds of resistance can be discerned in the protests against police murders and the post-election demonstrations against Trump, although these movements have not taken on a clear working class character and are vulnerable to recuperation by the professional politicians of the left, by different varieties of nationalist or democratic ideology. For the working class to overcome both the populist menace and the false alternatives sold by the left wing of capital, something much deeper is required, a movement for proletarian independence which is able to understand itself politically and re-connect with the communist traditions of our class. This is not for the immediate, but revolutionaries have a role today in preparing such a development, above all by fighting for the political and theoretical clarity that can light a way through the prevailing smog of capitalist ideology, in all its guises.
1 A sign of how widespread is Republican opposition to Trump: former president George W Bush himself, hardly part of the left wing of the party, announced that he would submit a blank paper rather than vote for Trump.
2 Our rejection of the policy of ‘anti-fascist’ alliances with one sector of the ruling class against another is inherited above all from the Italian communist left, who correctly saw anti-fascism as a means to mobilise the working class for war. See ‘Anti-fascism: a formula for confusion’, a text from Bilan republished in International Review 101.
3 For more on Sanders, see the article ‘Trump v Clinton’.